Comings and goings at Christmas - Madonna Magazine

Comings and goings at Christmas

Andrew Hamilton, SJ 01 December 2017

Christmas is a time for homecoming. But for adults, it is also edged with sadness. No matter how happy is the celebration it is always edged by longing for the Christmases of childhood. We remember the family members who are dead or absent and a childhood home to which we can never return.

The reality of returning home, too, rarely matches the desire. The Greek poem, The Odyssey, describes Odysseus’ long journey home from war to Ithaca through many adventures. It does not tell us what happened next. But the English poet Alfred Tennyson describes Odysseus brooding at home preparing for the next journey:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

In the Gospels, Christmas is not about a homecoming but about an outward journey.

The great German theologian Karl Barth gathered the life and death of Jesus into two haunting phrases. He described Jesus’ coming as ‘the journey of the Son of God into a far country’, and his death and Resurrection as ‘the homecoming of the Son of Man’. He compares God’s coming into the world to share our life with the journey of the Prodigal Son into a foreign land where he loses his money and his pride. He compares his death and return to his Father to the journey of the bedraggled Prodigal Son to throw himself on his father’s mercy.

Seen from this perspective the Christmas stories are more of a leaving home than a coming home. The Son of God leaves the comfort of heaven to journey with us and share our humiliation, our rags and our starvation rations.

In the Christmas stories, too, God’s coming to us leads people to leave home.

In Luke’s Gospel after Gabriel brings good news to Mary, she immediately rushes off to visit Elizabeth. At the end of her pregnancy, she goes off to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.

When the family later leaves home to visit Jerusalem, the young Jesus stays behind because this is where his business lies.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the star takes the wise men far from home and causes Joseph and Mary to escape with Jesus into Egypt before returning to another town.

The Christmas stories are about leaving home. The Passiontide stories are about coming home.

Christian writings have always emphasised the fact that we are never completely at home in this world. They describe us as resident aliens – people on temporary visas – and as tent-dwellers. They say that here we have no lasting city, that our home is heaven. All this suggests that we are journeyers travelling home by a circuitous route following Jesus’ path.

And of course, that is also the pattern of Christian life. The sacraments are all about a journey that takes us away from home and leaves us on a journey to our true home. Baptism sets us on the journey and in the caravan with which we shall travel. Confirmation marks our initial steps from the family tent into responsibilities in the caravan and Eucharist our feeding. Penance marks the points in our journey when we think of ourselves as travellers and not vagrants, and turn our minds towards our true home. Marriage marks a definitive leaving of our tent to another, and anointing draws our mind to our eventual homecoming as the caravan draws close to its destination.

This does not mean that we should close our eyes and trash our campsites with our eyes fixed only on heaven. When we are travelling Jesus is our pioneer and example. He journeyed with us in our world, eyes open to its beauty and variety, and heart open to all those whom he met. He loved the world enough to experience the worst that human beings could make of it.

Our home is with God and God is with us on our journey. We should pitch our tents gratefully and tidily because every site is sacred. It is God’s home and through it we come to our home.



Recent articles by Andrew Hamilton, SJ.

Leaving the box behind to meet God


submit a comment